Thursday, April 7, 2011

Colorful Comic Detective


I am up to my eyeballs in curriculum reform and other academic duties, but I am chugging along in the classroom (and in the studio, if in a holding pattern sort of way for the next few weeks). My Commercial Modernism course has moved into cartooning and animation, which provides a nice complement to the history of illustration.


The digital projector bulb in my classroom is an underperformer, shall we say. Vivid colors sour into dark patches. Vexing. Hence I'm using this format to show a set of stills from Warren Beatty's film Dick Tracy (1990), which is characterized by nothing if not vivid color. The palette of the film is extremely self-conscious, an explicit attempt to capture the garish signature of the Sunday supplement in days of yore.


The film also makes use of highly schematic spatial compositions, juxtaposing a figurative pairing in the middle ground with an object in extreme close up.


These cinematic devices dominate the experience of watching the film, which is visually engaging but emotionally distant. A certain methodism dogs the project. Nonetheless I am fond of it.


Beatty honors the spirit of the strip in many ways, including a loving assembly of Gould's crazy ensemble of villains. For example, The Brow (above, in a strip; below, played by Chuck Hicks)


and Flattop, in a strip


and in the film, played by William Forsythe.


My affections are tied to the ghastly-goofy foam rubber villain makeup. I love these guys for three reasons: 1) they bring campy pre-digital physicality to the film, 2) they embody the crypto-moral imagination of Chester Gould, the comic strip's creator, and 3) fine actors inhabit them, including Al Pacino, the late Paul Sorvino, Dustin Hoffman, and others. Below, Little Face (Lawrence Steven Myers). Toward the top of this post, Pruneface (R.G. Armstrong).


Litigation pitting Beatty against the Tribune Company (owners of the Chicago Trib; the LA Times; and Tribune Media Services, the syndicate that distributed Gould's strip) was only recently concluded. Tribune had claimed that Beatty did not jump through the proper hoops to retain rights to the character for a long-planned sequel.


Recent press reports show that late last month, Beatty won.


Will the crime-fighting Man in the Yellow Hat return? Given Tracy's durability as a character and a property, the answer is almost certainly yes, whether or not Beatty is involved...

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